10.30.08

Trouble In Florida

The fate of the US Embargo of Cuba rests on down and dirty campaigns in South Florida.

The fate of the U.S. Embargo of Cuba rests on down and dirty campaigns in South Florida

I have been covering the nexus of Miami—Havana-Washington politics for almost two decades. It is a scorched-earth terrain of gladiator combat between Cuban strongman Fidel Castro, a small, dedicated army of his would-be assassins, and the Cuban exile powerbrokers who have run Miami and dictated policy to the White House.

I have reported on how this battleground has changed—from the mid 1970s, when bombs went off sometimes daily in Miami, to the post-9/11 era, when violence was shuttled to the side in deference to the ballot box.

This election is the end game: on November 4 the fate of the US Embargo against Cuba will likely be decided by the outcome of the presidential race, along with the political future of its most ardent champions, two members of Congress who also happen to be nephews of Fidel Castro: Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart.

Cuba hardliners Diaz-Balarts “will have to be crow-barred out of here,” says a Democratic rival.

The stakes are huge and the campaign is as down and dirty as any in Florida’s colorful history as the brothers try to fight off challenges from their Democratic rivals, both Cuban-Americans.

Dade and Broward counties, which include Miami and its surrounding suburbs, are the most populist in the state, with about a half million Cuban-American voters. The balloting there will likely determine which presidential candidate nails Florida’s 27 coveted electoral votes, along with the fate of the 48 year old U.S. Embargo against Cuba. During this election season, John McCain has morphed into a fierce hardliner on Cuba, aligning himself with the two Republican congressional incumbents.

Barack Obama has said that he is open to diplomacy with Cuba, regardless of whether Fidel or Raul Castro are in power, and has vowed to rescind the Bush Administrations’ harsh restrictions on travel and remittances. That is heresy to the Diaz-Balarts, who are also the sons and grandsons of a famous Cuban politicians, which means that there is little sunlight between the personal and the political in Miami. Think of the Castro/Diaz-Balart saga as the House of Atreus, a Hispanic Hatfields and McCoys or simply as a five decade running telenovela.

The Cuban-American community has undergone dramatic changes, with the majority now backing dialogue with Cuba. Still, hardliners control many of the major levers of power in Miami, their influence felt in media, law enforcement, even the courts.

Determined to maintain their power, the Diaz-Balarts have aired a series of ferocious attacks against their opponents. Last week, a voting scam was uncovered that threatens to end up in the courts, joining a long list of incidents that have made Florida synonymous with dirty elections.

"I don't think any other place in the United States has had such a history of absentee ballot voter fraud,” said Kendall Coffey, the former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida. “Miami has a legacy of lawlessness going back to the 1920’s.”

Two weeks ago, after absentee ballots arrived in the mail, a gentleman calling himself “Juan” visited several supporters of Raul Martinez, the Democratic former mayor of Hialeah who is challenging Lincoln Diaz-Balart. “Juan” offered the voters assistance in filling out their ballots, which he then promised to deliver to the elections office. “Juan” had been dispatched to pro-Martinez household by callers claiming to work for Martinez. In fact neither “Juan” nor his dispatchers work for Martinez nor the Democratic Party—and no one knows what happened to the ballots.

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The Miami Herald traced the phone number given to the duped residents to a consultant who works for Diaz-Balart. One duped voter summoned Jeff Garcia, the campaign manager for Martinez, who was able to videotape “Juan” as well as his car and license plate. Another mysterious visitor named “Angel” purporting to be from the office of Miami-Dade’s election supervisor was also videotaped. Cornered by a Martinez volunteer, “Angel” said he was employed by the Diaz-Balart office.

Jeff Garcia then delivered affidavits from the misled voters to the State Attorney’s office. But those wise in the ways of Miami are not holding their breath.

State Attorney Kathy Fernandez Rundle has been famously lax about enforcement, although following local media coverage, she has become more engaged. Lincoln Diaz-Balart’s spokesman told me that the fraud allegation is “a ludicrous charge coming from a desperate campaign.”

The Martinez camp disagrees, and notes that misrepresentations by telephone violate federal law. It gave the Juan tapes to local TV and also enlisted high-powered Miami lawyer, Michael Band. “Win or lose this election, we will pursue this case,” Garcia said.

The “Juan/Angel” saga caps a long list of election funny business in Dade County.

  • In 1998 the election of Miami’s Republican mayor, Xavier Suarez was overthrown by the courts for an array of irregularities. For example, a certain Manuel Yip had died in 1994, yet voted absentee every year thereafter. The presiding judge also ruled that some 5,000 absentee ballots were fraudulent. One Miami vegetable peddler had witnessed more than 70 absentee ballots while some of the city's poorest had been paid $10 to vote for Suarez.
  • In 2002, while chair of Florida’s House Redistricting Committee, Mario Diaz-Balart, in one of the great gerrymandering triumphs in recent memory, carved out a congressional district tailor made for himself. Then he stepped in and won.
  • In 2004, absentee ballots were reportedly sold on Little Havana's Calle Ocho for $25 apiece.

Democrats are mindful and have turned out a small army in Florida that has registered about 700,000 more voters than Republicans. “The Democrats are showing a Republican level of discipline this year,” said Miami columnist Jim DeFede. “They have money to burn and they are burning it.”

They will need every cent as the Diaz-Balarts are using all the weapons in their considerable arsenal. “They will have to be crow-barred out of here,” says Democratic rival Joe Garcia.

But the playing field is hardly level. Radio Mambi, which claims to be number one in the Spanish-language radio market in South Florida, is run by a colorful character named Armando Perez-Roura, who has become a kingmaker in exile politics. He is ardently anti-Castro and pro –McCain and Diaz-Balart, as is Mambi celebrity Ninoska Pérez Castellón, who hosts a morning show with Perez-Roura, another in the afternoon solo and another on Miami television.

“That’s three shows a day that Ninoska has to campaign against me,” complains Martinez. “Ninoska attacks me 24 hours a day, every single day,” says Garcia, “and I have complained to Univision [Mambi’s parent company] that the station is inciting violence.”

Florida's Cuban-American politics are known as The Third Rail. Of the one million registered Hispanic voters in the state, half are Cuban-Americans. It was always the conventional wisdom that a Democrat needed 35% of the Cuban vote to take Florida. But if Obama carries Florida with less—as may prove to be the case—politics in The Sunshine State will never be the same.

Once a rock-solid GOP constituency, the Cuban-American community has splintered. John McCain (and the Diaz-Balarts) will carry the majority of first-wave exiles—about 300,000 older, whiter Cubans known as el exilio historico, who arrived in the early 1960s. But even hardliners on Cuba tend to be social progressives who support bilingual education, expanded Social Security and Medicare spending, and a laissez faire immigration policy. That puts them at loggerheads with McCain’s running mate Sarah Palin, a Christian Right conservative. And the Iraq War, is as unpopular on Calle Ocho as it is in Manhattan.

Another slice of el exilio historico will not be voting for Obama because of his skin color, usually indicated in Miami by tapping two fingers against one’s forearm. Some refer to him as el negro, others allude to the nube negra [the black cloud].

Still pollster Sergio Bendixen doesn’t think racism is as strong a factor in la comunidad as it once may have been. The majority of Cuban-Americans in South Florida today are post-Mariel, having come after 1980, and most of them are of mixed raced background.

Polls at press time have Obama leading McCain in Florida by 3 to 4 points. Bendixen says early exit tallies indicate Obama is nailing about a third of older Cuban-Americans, who went only 25% for Kerry. But Obama is ahead two-to-one among the 100,000 who were born in the U.S. and doing even better with the 100,000 or so who came after 1980. Moreover, Obama is leading among the state's half million non-Cuban Hispanic voters--Colombians, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and Nicaraguans.

The Diaz-Balarts, both in squeaker races, are fighting for their political lives. One ad put up by Lincoln Diaz-Balart begins with a mug shot of Martinez and the word “guilty” running across the screen. What the ad doesn’t tell viewers was that Martinez’s conviction for extortion was reversed on appeal—or that the charges in 1990 were leveled by an acting US attorney, Dexter Lehtinen, the husband of Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who stepped in and took the congressional seat that Martinez seemed to have a lock on until he was charged.

Raul Martinez has responded with his own blitz of commercials charging Diaz-Balart with, among other things, accepting money from an indicted Puerto Rican politician, which has been vehemently denied by Diaz-Balart.

Joe Garcia, formerly Dade’s Democratic Party chair, was also a past Executive Director of the Cuban-American National Foundation. Once a hardline exile organization, CANF has shifted towards the political center and has endorsed Barack Obama. Mario Diaz-Balart's ads tie Garcia to the collapse of Enron and other misdeeds. “You can still do the Big Lie in Miami,” said Garcia. “And get away with it. This is a town where the basic institutions have collapsed.“ (Calls to the office Mario Diaz-Balart for a response were not returned.)

While the economy remains the central issue in Miami as elsewhere, Garcia never misses an opportunity to remind voters about some tricky family history. “The last time the Diaz-Balarts were removed from power,” quips Garcia. “It took a Revolution and we ended up with Fidel Castro.”

To that end, he has produced the most talked about ad in Miami. It begins with circus calliope music and shows Fidel Castro gesticulating wildly with a red letter text below him reading “Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.” Then we see Mario Diaz-Balart making virtually the same gestures with the red letters below him reading “U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart.” Next up is the scowling face of his brother Lincoln Diaz-Balart. The images are repeated: Fidel, Mario, Lincoln. The dizzying music continues.

Then the message appears on screen: “This November ... Let’s end the family circus. Vote against Fidel’s nephews.